Judge: Texas Can't Kick Planned Parenthood Out of Medicaid

by | February 22, 2017

By Chuck Lindell

A federal judge Tuesday blocked Texas officials from ousting Planned Parenthood as a Medicaid health care provider, dealing another blow to Republican-led efforts to enforce stricter abortion-related regulations and policy.

U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks of Austin said state health officials tried to punish Planned Parenthood based on "unsubstantiated and indeterminate allegations" in footage taken from an undercover video shot in 2015 by abortion opponents.

Nothing in the eight hours of video, and nothing presented in court by state health officials, provided evidence that Planned Parenthood had broken federal law, state law or Medicaid rules, Sparks ruled, concluding that Texas acted "without cause" to remove a qualified organization from the federal-state program that provides health care to low-income people.

"It appears the termination decision had nothing to do with (Planned Parenthood's) qualifications," Sparks wrote.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said he will appeal the ruling.

"Today's decision is disappointing and flies in the face of basic human decency," Paxton said in a statement. "Even the remains of the most vicious criminals are treated with respect. But the children who never had a chance at life become so-called medical waste or, alternatively, a commodity to be bartered for."

The case before Sparks focused on whether the video, shot by abortion opponents posing as specialists in tissue procurement for medical research, offered sufficient evidence of medical and ethical violations at a Planned Parenthood facility in Houston to justify ousting all 30 Planned Parenthood health clinics from Texas Medicaid.

During a three-day hearing in mid-January, Stuart Bowen Jr., inspector general for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, testified that he moved to oust Planned Parenthood on Dec. 18 because the video showed that clinic officials were willing to change how abortions were performed to better obtain fetal organs and tissue for use in medical research.

Such changes would violate federal law and accepted medical practices while putting women at greater risk, Bowen said.

But Sparks said the video featured "unclear and ambiguous dialogue" from a research director who had no personal knowledge of abortion procedures and who repeatedly referred specific questions to Planned Parenthood's abortion doctors.

"Most significantly, the inspector general admitted he had no evidence any (Planned Parenthood) doctor altered the medical procedure of an abortion, for research purposes or for any other reason, when he issued the final notice _ nor did he have such evidence at the hearing," wrote Sparks, appointed to the bench in 1991 by President George H.W. Bush.

Sparks also dismissed Bowen's allegation that the video showed a willingness to profit from procuring fetal tissue, a violation of federal law that allows only direct expenses to be reimbursed.

Bowen had no evidence Planned Parenthood "ever profited, or even sought to profit," from fetal tissue, Sparks said. "Specifically, the inspector general could not point to a single payment (Planned Parenthood) ever received that exceeded its expenses incurred," he wrote.

The judge also said that dropping Planned Parenthood from Medicaid could disrupt the health care for many of the 12,500 low-income Texans, mostly women, who get contraceptives and health care from the organization, which offers night and weekend hours other clinics don't.

Last year, Planned Parenthood affiliates in Texas received a combined $3.5 million in Medicaid reimbursements for health care that did not include abortions. Ninety percent of the Medicaid money came from the federal government, with the rest provided by Texas.

Sparks' ruling was another setback for abortion-related Texas regulations.

In a separate case last month, Sparks blocked Texas from requiring fetal remains to be buried or cremated, saying the rule placed an unacceptable burden on access to abortion, in part because a limited number of willing and available crematoriums could make it impossible for clinics to comply. Paxton said he also will appeal that ruling.

Tuesday's ruling comes almost eight months after the U.S. Supreme Court tossed out two Texas regulations, passed in the second of two tumultuous special legislative sessions in 2013, which would have left nine abortion clinics operating in the state. The ruling overturned rules requiring that abortions be performed in hospital-like surgical centers and that abortion doctors have admitting privileges in a nearby hospital.

(c)2017 Austin American-Statesman, Texas